Editor’s note: At the end of January 2020, believers from around the world gathered at KL2020, a gospel conference in Malaysia. We are pleased to share on our blog the voice of those who spoke at KL2020. Here, Chinese ministry leaders answer an audience question about the temptation to pursue and worship a successful life, a common idolatry trap for urban Christians in China.
Moderator: Urban people aspire to and actively pursue a certain model of life that they see as successful. Even Christians inevitably move towards this idealized life, and consequently form idols in their hearts. How can we avoid or identify such idolatry traps?
Simon Liu: We need to make the definition of idolatry even more clear. We have mentioned many good things, including work for God—but what if your work accidentally becomes your idol? There is one point that can help us differentiate whether something is a good thing we enjoy, or an idol.
The Bible says the God we worship is a jealous God. In order to avoid misunderstanding what “jealous” means, and since the Bible often uses marriage as an analogy, let me also use marriage as an example. In marriage, God is the husband. God must be in this unique position. If we are clear on this, the rest will be easy. You cannot find a replacement for God, even if that thing is considered very good in certain contexts. A husband is the husband; a love is the paramour. You cannot casually exchange these roles. With this in mind, it is easier to differentiate whether something is an idol.
Moderator: If you prioritize your career as most important, all your decisions will be determined by your career. You make decisions in pursuit of that success. Consequently, you will focus your time and energy on your career, to the point of neglecting family relationships, ending church attendance, or no longer worshipping God. These things will seem a waste of time.
Would You Pray With Us Today?
Which do you love the most? Do you love God more? Or do you love your career more than God?
Simon Liu: The brother who asked this question specifically mentioned the idea of “a successful life.” When we come to know the Lord, we have to redefine success. What is success for a Christian? Success for a Christian is to do the will of God in your life.
If I still follow the standards of the world after I become a Christian, and I become richer, have a great career, have many children, a wonderful wife, and consider these things as my success, then I have been living in two different kingdoms. Because you know God and are chosen by God, you live in another kingdom. In the kingdom of Christ, success, career, and family are valued very differently from the definition given them by our culture.
As a Christian, I must first think about whether my concept of success is the same as the success Christ talked about. If it is, then I am able to think and act according to the standard of the kingdom of heaven, and enter into the success of the heavenly kingdom. Otherwise, we live within a distorted reality. We are attempting to fit into the kingdom of Christ, and trying to find success in both his kingdom and in the kingdom of this world.
This ideology has become the prosperity gospel of today. A person may be successful in this world, but Ecclesiastes says: “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” Is it possible for the object of success you have chosen to survive to the end of eternity? Anything that cannot survive in eternity is ultimately a type of failure.
Zhang Muxi: Everyone should read The Real American Dream. The author is a Harvard graduate, and a professor of American Cultural Studies at Columbia University. He is not a Christian, but he talks about some of the specific issues which have shaped American culture as a whole in his book. One of these issues is that God may be the American idol of success. God and country—that is, the nation-state, American national greatness, and then the “self”—are the three different stages of American culture.
The author raises a particularly interesting question. He says you can think of cities as the conveyor of our current civilization. Is our civilization a glorious city that everyone aspires to and pursues—or is it a temporary shelter in the midst of the darkness? His question is pointed. He retrospectively asks whether all of the cities and civilizations we have are built upon truth and reality. When we try to cover up all the emptiness of life and build upon these cultures, are we pursuing something that is real? This is the same as the idols we have been discussing.
Behind the visible city there is another city, the heavenly Jerusalem. That is the ultimate city, the place where God is. There are all kinds of temples in cities built by human hands which don’t belong to God. Within the heavenly city, there is an invisible city which is currently being built. This invisible city is called the Church. The Church is the temporal and invisible manifestation of the eternal city of Jerusalem, and each local church is a scaffold for the future city.
Go back to church. Regardless of whether you are a pastor or a brother or sister in the church, we must all diligently strive to build this eternal, heavenly city in Christ. By doing this, you will not be blinded by the city.
FOR PRAYER AND REFLECTION
Pray for Chinese Christians to view success through the lens of God’s kingdom: to define success as doing the will of God, not worldly achievement.